An athlete wouldn’t think of playing on a field without knowing the terrain. Where is “out-of-bounds?” Where is center field? How far off are the goalposts? Who gets the opening parry?
Doing an interview with a journalist is quite a bit like playing a game on an athletic field. Someone has to define the terrain, set the boundaries and establish the rules. And that person should be you because what you’re really doing in setting up this interview playing field is creating and defining your comfort zone, the place where you can safely put your feet without being thrown off-balance.
To use a soccer analogy (that’s football to the rest of the world), think of each question from the journalist as a ball in play to which you must react, seizing the questions-and-answer back and forth that makes up an interview to drive toward the points you want to make. It’s a game. Your objective is to score your point, as it were, while the inquisitive journalist will from time to time try to push the ball out-of-bounds or force you into a corner.
Keep Your Eye on the Field
In every game, it’s important to visualize where the ball is headed so you can see it shooting out-of-bounds or moving offside. It’s up to you to control the ball, whether metaphorical or real and return it to the center of the field when you encounter difficulties. It’s up to you to master successive passes. It’s up to you whether you cross the goalposts or are pushed into a fault.
In an interview with a journalist, these playing field lines are mental ones, but the sports analogy holds: you must map out the interview’s playing field mentally—the center, side zones, the perimeter of the field—and take care not to be forced out-of-bounds. It’s a question of being able to anticipate and reposition yourself; of being reactive and flexible in handling questions so as to be in subtle control of the interview.
As mentioned above, a good communicator is able to keep the playing field in mind at every phase of the interview: the preparation, a broad vision of the exchange he or she will have with the journalist, the potential pitfalls. The biggest mistake I see among executives in interview situations is their failure to maintain that higher strategic viewpoint during the interview itself. They become so focused on the questions themselves—on the “ball,” so to speak—they forget the direction in which they want and need the interview to go. They lose track of the game and where they are on the field. And they lose.
By adopting a bird’s eye view, you are better able to avoid any traps a journalist may spring, because you will have anticipated them. And even if you haven’t, you’ll know how to move back toward your comfort zone. As a result, you are better able to control the interview and stay focused on your message.
To get started, ask yourself: How do I know my limits? What should I be saying? Moreover, what should I NOT be saying? What questions are likely to give me the most trouble? How do I get the ball back to the center of the field? The answers to these questions will help you define your comfort zone—the place where you will be most at ease, most in charge, and best able to respond to questions from a journalist.
Overall, the most effective approach is to keep the ball in play—that is, keep the interview moving, rather than come to a halt or allowing yourself to be forced into a corner by a probing journalist because you let the momentum drop.
Rebounding From Tough Questions
A rebound reply to a tough question may be to answer a parallel question, something like this: “I get the sense of your question, but more fundamentally, what we need to talk about is…” and then maneuver back towards your comfort zone. You have acknowledged the original question but put it in perspective with your focus on a different, though related, topic—one that you are more comfortable discussing.
It’s also necessary to know how to keep the ball in play by referring a tough question to someone who is in a better position to answer, or to argue that the information being sought is confidential—if this is true, of course! Planning your retreat from tough questions which for any number of reasons cannot be answered should be part of your preparation with your communications department for the interview.
On a deeper level, it’s important to be connected with the moment and animated by a sincere and enthusiastic passion for your subject (even if the news is bad). You need to enjoy the “game” of the interview… and to like scoring your points when you can. And, as with world-class athletes, you will find your talents in the interview situation improve with experience and training, as long as you know your playing field and your comfort zone.
Editor’s Note: This Article originally appeared on Forbes.com and is featured here with author permission.